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Victor Shih: “In China, Xi Jinping’s Limitless Power Shows Its ‘Limits'”


Professor at the University of California, San Diego, Victor Shih studies Chinese political elites as well as the mechanisms of interaction between local authorities and central power. It also analyzes decision-making processes in today’s China. His latest book, Coalitions of the Weak (“Coalitions of the Weak”, Cambridge University Press, 2022, untranslated), explores how President Xi Jinping used the weakness of other high-ranking politicians to establish total and personal power.

How to explain that after three years of zero Covid policy, set up as a Chinese model against the West, Beijing suddenly abandoned this strategy, in December 2022?

There were, within the government, probably already a few months before this decision, supporters of a drastic relaxation of the policy against Covid-19. A posteriori, the official news agency, New China, said that the government relied on data obtained in November – at a time when there were already outbreaks of contamination in the country -, showing that severe infection and case fatality rates were quite low. I don’t completely believe it.

For a leader like Xi Jinping who intends to stay in power for the long term, another decisive factor is the economy. But this one is bad. To save it, we had to give up the zero Covid policy. Finally, there were the protests at the end of November 2022. They were interpreted as a reaction to the economic situation, as job opportunities were restricted for young people. The power therefore decided to change course, suddenly and with a lack of preparation.

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Doesn’t such a reversal undermine the legitimacy of President Xi?

Yes, of course, and first and foremost in the eyes of those losing loved ones, older people who had not been exposed to the virus due to previous policy. The death of all these people has an impact on the trust that the Chinese people have in him. Since China is not a democracy, the state of mind of the Chinese is certainly not a primary concern, but there is a need for power to justify itself, to try to prove that its decisions were taken in a rational, and that a new balance had to be found. What Beijing does not say is that a middle course could very well have been followed: staggering the end of the restrictions to send a message of hope, while launching a massive vaccination campaign and buying large volumes. of Paxlovid, an effective antiviral. It would certainly have saved lives.

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